With an ambitious new album on the Carpark label hitting stores recently, Chaz Bundick is finally getting his inner R&B groove on.
BY J. POET
Chaz Bundick, the singer, songwriter, producer and bandleader known to the world as Toro y Moi, didn’t wanted to be a musician when he was a boy, turned off by the enforced piano lessons when he was in grammar school.
“I started playing piano at eight,” he says, speaking from the Berkeley home he shares with his girlfriend. He recently moved to the West Coast from his home base in South Carolina. “My mom made me take classical piano lessons, but I wasn’t into it. I wanted to go play outside with my friends. It was only once a week, but it meant extra homework, so I didn’t like it. I quit when I was 12.” Bundick made a compromise with his mother, who insisted on some kind of musical education. “I told her I’d take guitar lessons, which I enjoyed. I walked in with a classical guitar, but I told the teacher I wanted to learn rock songs. I borrowed an electric guitar and started learning the basic chords. I actually enjoyed those lessons.”
Bundick, a big Weezer fan, started jamming with his friends. “I don’t know what inspired me to write my first song,” he recalls. “I was 15 and thought it would be fun to write my own music and jam on it. The first things I wrote were pop/punk songs. Then, for my 15th birthday, I got a basic four-track tape recorder with a microphone. That opened a lot of doors. I started making up songs after reading the manual and immediately got weird with [my music]. I could play melodies on two racks and the drums and another guitar on the other tracks. That was a big turning point for me. I started teaching myself production.”
While he attended Ridge View High School in Columbia, Bundick continued jamming with friends. They eventually started The Heist and The Accomplice. They became a well-known indie rock band in the South Carolina area, while the players were still in high school. “We made three records. I was the main songwriter and lead singer. I had the melodies in my head, but everybody contributed to the songs. Our main influences were Caveman, My Bloody Valentine, Interpol, The Strokes and Yo Lo Tengo.”
Between lessons and rehearsals, he continued experimenting with his home recordings, choosing the multi-lingual moniker Toro y Moi for his solo project. “Toro y” is Spanish for “the bull and” while “moi” is “me” in French, but as Bundick explains, “the name doesn’t mean anything; it was just something I made up when I was 15. I wanted a band name that didn’t start with ‘The’ and since it’s a solo project, I wanted something catchy. I think I’ve succeeded because I’ve been using it for a long time now and I’m not sick of it yet.”
Without bandmates, Bundick could do whatever he wanted with his Toro project. He started out producing acoustic tunes, but when he got a laptop in college, the programs created a lot more production possibilities for him. “I got interested in mixing pop, rock, bossa nova, R&B and hip hop. I wasn’t thinking of anything specific. I was just experimenting and finding out what I was into.”
In 2009, Bundick put a few of his experiments on his MySpace page. “I burned a couple of CDs and sent them out to a bunch of music blogs and emailed a bunch of people to let them know the stuff was out there. It started snowballing. In a few months, I was contacted by Carpark Records and they put out Causers of This in 2010.”
Carpark asked Bundick to go on tour to support the album, but he had mixed feelings about touring as a solo artist. “I was on stage using [backing] tracks from the laptop and playing keys and singing live. I’d never done that before. I’d always been in a band and I was uncomfortable having to rely on the laptop. I didn’t feel like I was pulling my weight as a writer and singer by performing with a laptop. That’s why I decided to put together a band.”
The sound of Toro y Moi has evolved quickly. Causers Of This was mostly put together on the computer and had a homemade electronic feel. For 2011’s Underneath the Pine, Bundick used real instruments, with a trace of disco and funk in the mix, put together once again in his bedroom studio. “The biggest challenge was making sure that all the parts – piano, guitar, bass, drums – sounded good. I wasn’t sure how capable I was. I’d played bass and drums on things I’d given away to people, but I was just fooling around.” Not to worry. Underneath the Pine scored another tsunami of positive reviews that were shared by Bundick’s live performances with his band.
After his move to Berkeley last year, Bundick started working on his latest opus for Carpark, Anything In Return. He’s still playing all the instruments, but this record was made at Different Fur Studio in San Francisco. “This is the first time I worked outside the laptop,” he says. “It was challenging. I’d program the basic ideas at home: the rhythm, the main instrument and the vocals, then finalize everything in the studio. I’m kind of shy and I need a solitary environment when I’m writing. In the studio, I’d play along with what I’d [recorded at home] and add the other instruments. The arrangements all follow from the basic beat. Every once in a while, I make a song with an arrangement in mind, but mostly it’s improvised as I go along. It’s not thought out too much. My production goal was to come close to the sound of hip-hop and R&B songs I’ve been listening to. My songwriting goal was to compose some pop songs. I’ve been listening to a lot of R&B and wanted it to have that kind of rhythmic feel.”
The arrangements on Anything In Return suggest early Philly soul, pop, ‘70s funk and rock, all with a pleasing pop sheen enhanced by Bundick’s understated production and simple heartfelt lyrics delivered with his charming soulful simplicity. “I don’t think lyrics are that important,” he says modestly. “When I listen to music I focus more on the music. I want people to hear what I say, without being as loud or in your face as.
“Music is constantly being produced by millions of people who are trying to get people’s ears. I realize how fortunate I am to have gotten this much attention, but I’m constantly dissatisfied with what I’m doing. It’s not the best mentality; it’s just a human reaction. I wish I was a better keyboard player, but there’s only so much I can do, so my goal is to accept my limitations and do the best I can. I try to get better at playing my songs, but if I have time to spare, I don’t practice. I spend it writing new songs.
“In the end, it’s not the technical stuff that matters, it’s the sound and feel and energy that’s important.”